Midway through the film about him, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold compares eating another culture’s cuisine to watching a documentary. “It gives you the illusion of understanding things,” he says, “and maybe you have different context to put things in, and maybe that’s all you can ask for. And sometimes that’s enough.” We don’t need such an explicit acknowledgment of the meta parallel, but Gold is just doing what he does so well in his writing, connecting with his audience.
In that moment, he speaks directly to the general documentary fan more than the foodies who’ll be easily drawn in. He gets us to see his point about his work — specifically how he sometimes feels he knows about Burma through his consumption of Burmese food — by relating it to our interests. His statement serves as a reminder of the limits of what we’re watching. The film, City of Gold, offers us only the illusion of understanding Gold and his profession. And he’s totally right, this documentary is all we can ask for, and it is enough.
Actually, I found it to be more than enough. A film about a critic, or any kind of writer, sounds non-cinematic and therefore nonessential viewing. City of Gold is indeed rather plain as far as its visuals are concerned. There’s not even much “food porn” that I can recall. But just as Gold’s writing doesn’t require illustration, this film doesn’t need more than the basics of documentary storytelling to get at its point. Not that it’s the equivalent to one of Gold’s reviews. It does, however, do a fine job showcasing why Gold and his reviews matter.
City of Gold is not just a film about Gold and the documentation of a few days in his life as he navigates the taco trucks of Los Angeles and the Chinese spots hidden in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s also, through Gold as a guide and conduit, a film about L.A., its people and their food (it could be retitled Los Angeles Eats Itself, offering an illusion on par with the films featured in Los Angeles Plays Itself). He’s profiled as a kind of cartographer and a cultural ambassador as much as he is a tastemaker. As a critic, he connects his readers, through his use of second-person rhetoric, to the city’s cooks and whatever groups they represent. The food itself is almost incidental. Almost.
“Criticism is criticism,” Gold tells a graduating class at UCLA, where he had studied music composition and played the cello. “An aria is in some way the equivalent of a well-cooked potato.” He began his journalism career writing critically about classical music and opera and segued to restaurants while a proofreader at the L.A. Weekly. But he also spent part of the ’80s in a punk band and covered the growing hip-hop scene as the paper’s music editor. He was embedded in and wrote about local culture as if he were a documentarian, not someone giving thumbs up or thumbs down to businesses and their edible (or inedible) wares.
Anyone wishing to become a professional critic of anything should be inspired by Gold in this film, taking away that you need to be erudite and capable of writing about anything other than a single specialty. It’s as important a documentary on the broad arena of criticism in general as Steve James’s Life Itself, which profiles film critic Roger Ebert. Directed by Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man), City of Gold is not as refined as that film (and definitely not as emotionally engaging), working best as another outlet for rather than portrait of its subject.
Any documentary can gather a bunch of peers and family members to talk glowingly about a person and his background and successes and significance. Some can also find side stories like that of Genet Agonafer, whose Ethiopian restaurant is said to have been saved by Gold’s coverage, to give living proof of his influence. City of Gold has all that for the “about” side of its profile, and it’s requisite material, but the documentary would be nothing without its shared experience of Gold. It’s not exactly that Gold carries the film, but Gabbert certainly knows when to put it in his hands, or make it look like it’s there.
City of Gold can seem a bit scattered in terms of its direction. Gold’s life is not presented chronologically or in a chaptered breakdown, which is fine. Topics already discussed earlier in the film spring back up, though in different contexts or for different reasons. But it’s still a cohesive documentary, one that sums up its subjects — the man, the job, the city — pretty well considering the scope of each. It may only offer us an illusion of understanding them all, but it suggests that Gabberts has full comprehension, which may also be an illusion but is good enough either way.
This review was originally published on March 21, 2016.